Myanmar shows mettle over sea row

As Asean chair, it resists China's pressure to influence joint statement

ASEAN and its current chair Myanmar have been criticised for not being strong enough on the issue of territorial disputes in the South China Sea at last weekend's summit in Naypyidaw.

 Not so, say diplomats involved in the summit. Myanmar, they say, resisted China's lobbying to exclude any reference to the disputed sea in the joint statement, though it agreed that it would not mention China by name.

The lesson: China may have been one of Myanmar's few friends during the latter's decades of dictatorship from 1962 to 2011, but that does not mean it will do China's bidding now.

Myanmar's relationship with China is undeniably close, but it is also complex. There has always been latent wariness of China among its elite, including in the military whose old guard fought China-backed communist insurgents during the Cold War years.

Asean's joint statement, which did not alter the words of the foreign ministers who had met earlier, said: "We expressed serious concerns over the ongoing developments in the South China Sea."

Without naming China, it called on all parties to "exercise self-restraint, not to resort to threat(s) or use of force, and to resolve disputes by peaceful means in accordance with the universally recognised principles of international law".

China claims nearly the entire South China Sea, which puts it at odds with several Asean nations, but most critically with Vietnam and the Philippines. The Asean summit came just days after China deployed an oil rig in waters near the Paracel islands claimed by both China and Vietnam. Skirmishes broke out subsequently between Vietnamese and Chinese ships nearby.

Vietnam's government was surprised by China's move because its ties with Beijing had been on the upswing recently with a series of high-level official visits.

"Vietnam spoke to all the Asean states, saying this is a very serious issue, please support us," one diplomat said, asking not to be named. "The Chinese said you should not put out a statement on this - but if you do, don't mention China."

The diplomat said Myanmar "gave Vietnam a lot of airtime, and did not stand in the way of consensus on the issue", adding: "Myanmar President Thein Sein has guts, I have to say. He just said, let it go."

In Naypyidaw over the weekend, Mr Thein Sein's spokesman Ye Htut told reporters: "Vietnam wants Asean to release a statement using stronger words. Asean can't stand on only one side. But Vietnam accepts this decision."

When Cambodia was chair in 2012, it blocked consensus on the South China Sea at the behest of China, and Asean for the first time in its history failed to issue a joint communique.   

 After the 2012 debacle, Asean was "in danger of becoming a tool of China", an official with the Philippines' Department of Foreign Affairs told The Straits Times. But Naypyidaw retrieved some of Asean's credibility, he said.